October 28, 2003

There seem to be 3 strands to my writing here, dear journal. The first is about my life as an 84 year old gay man at the all straight retirement home, Pine Needle Manor. The second is my political and social rage and commentary. The third is my thinking about my art and about art in general. Today's entry is a thread from the third strand. I’ve been running this stuff around in my head for weeks. If there is any art person reading this out there in the cyber void, I’d be happy to receive your thoughts as they relate to mine.

Ferdinand de Saussure: A Comparison of his “Sound Image” with the Art World Concept of the Visual Image


The following depends on a fundamental understanding of Ferdinand de Saussure’s study of linguistics as discussed in his Course in General Linguistics. The Columbia Encyclopedia on line gives a brief and concise summary of Saussure’s ideas. But, for a more thorough understanding go to Earl Jackson Jr’s Introduction to Saussure, or Mary Klag’s Structuralism and Saussure from which I've used the image of Saussure to the left. Of course the Course in General Linguistics is the primary source and offers the most thorough understanding of Saussure.

I am a visual artist, and in the visual arts, physical objects are created as soon as the artist applies paint to canvas, puts pencil to paper, or works clay on the wheel or by hand. It is the intention of the artist to shape these objects as visual images that will be received by other persons. Sometimes these objects are created so as to appeal to one or more of the other senses as well, but for the sake of this brief discussion, I wish to consider only those art objects which are intended solely as visual images. It is a certainty that these visual images will be acted upon by each mind that receives them. Thus, a discussion of the similarities and differences between sound images and visual images is important to an understanding of how visual art is received and understood. Saussure worked with sound images and he named the "concept" and the "sound image" signifier and signified in his treatise Course in General Linguistics.

The sound image is not the physical sound (what your mouth makes and your ear hears) but rather the psychological imprint of the sound, the impression it makes. An illustration of this is talking to yourself--you don't make a sound, but you have an impression of what you're saying1


What is the difference between the physical sound made by lips and voice box, and the received sound as interpreted in the human mind? It may be that the maker of the sound had intent, but the actual physical sound is vibration in the atmosphere, nothing more or less. By example, does a tree falling in a forest devoid of sentient beings make a sound? Well, it makes vibrations in the air. The received sound, Saussure’s “sound image,” is something that another human mind encounters and interprets. Since the background and acquired understandings of each mind are different based on life and experience, the received sound will be interpreted differently by each person. In that respect, the sound image is like a visual image because the visual image received by each mind will also be interpreted by each person according to their individual experience of the universe. It doesn’t matter that the actual physical property of one image is vibrations in the particles (molecules) of air, and the other is vibrations in particles of light (photons). Both sets of vibrations are being perceived, acted upon, and interpreted by individuals.

However, a visual image created in any human mind perceiving an art work is a very different thing from the sound image perceived by any human mind. The sound image is created by a singular unit of sound, one uttered word (actually a phoneme in Saussure’s original work). The word or unit of sound may be singular or one of many words or units put together to create a much more complex group of sound images, a sentence. The visual image created by an artist would be the equivalent of many strings of such sound units put together. Therefore it’s reception by any human mind would be the equivalent to the reception of an essay, poem, or novel, spoken out loud by it’s author. It is important to differentiate between the spoken word and the written word, because the written word is based on symbols for the spoken word. It is in this sense, like the visual image in that it is received by the human mind as vibrating particles of light rather than sound. As such, it is closer to the visual image than is spoken language. However, we assign particular meaning to words and have evolved a type of book designed to solidify those meanings, a dictionary. How is it possible to assign particular meaning to a peachy mauve colored passage of wavy soft lines that proceed from the upper left corner of a canvas to the lower right quadrant? This, my dear diary, might be the topic for another journal entry.

Additionally, why not call the sound image the “sound impression?” Because, the use of the word image implies a visual component that may or may not be present. I understand that the word “tree” for instance will conjure a picture in my mind. It is one that is not necessarily specific however, as in my own mind, I am cataloging trees as to type. I am turning pages as it were, on which are located hundreds of versions of the impression of a tree. However, connecting words like “the,” “and,” “with” do not necessarily contain visual components as part of their perceptual impression. Thus, “image” is perhaps not the best word choice for that which is signified.

Finally, there simply are no universals according to our Post Modern view of the world. Linguistics as proposed by Saussure can be stood on its head. Saussure claimed that all languages are composed of grammatical systems that may differ, but that nonetheless allow words to be put together in order to create meaning. But, what is meaning? Is meaning assigned to sound and word images according to each individual that receives them? Who decides which meaning is correct? In this Twenty-first Century world, I can not make a science of “imigistics.” However, I do know that there are similarities and differences between the terms “sound image” and “visual image” as I have discussed them and my awareness of these will affect the way I look at and understand visual art.


1Klages, Mary, Ph.D. “Structuralism and Saussure, lecture presented English 2010, University of Colorado at Boulder,” Revision: September 6, 2001.
http://www.colorado.edu/English/ENGL2012Klages/saussure.html (October 26, 2003)


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